If I were asked to defend the foreign policy record of the Obama administration my sword wouldn’t exactly flash from its scabbard. Through tedious lectures in Cairo and Oslo, to the quasi-legal assassination of a US citizen abroad and the absurd Iran deal, President Obama governed the Empire with an odd mixture of mawkishness and callousness.
One of the more bizarre and underrated diplomatic moments came at the 2013 G8 summit. Vladimir Putin made an astonishing request to Obama: make action star Steven Seagal an honorary consul of Russia in California and Arizona, with a view to being a key intermediary between Moscow and Washington.
Obama, who once described himself as ‘a movie guy’, presumably is not the kind of movie guy who takes out time every year to ruminate over the themes of Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. He was startled. ‘Our reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding,”’ an official told BuzzFeed News. The proposal was quickly scotched.
Seagal, an actor, director, writer, producer, instructor, consultant, swordsmith, energy drink creator, 7th Dan Black Belt in the art of Aikido, Kalashnikov sales rep, sniper rifle engineer, bulletproof kimono owner, private tutor to multiple MMA fighters, front kick inventor, ornate saddle collector, alleged sex trafficker and part-time Louisiana sheriff, eventually did become involved in Russian diplomacy.
Last year he was appointed as a special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States. His portfolio will include:
‘relations between Russia and the United States in the humanitarian field, including cooperation in culture, arts, public and youth exchanges.’
Peter Pomerantsev once described the zeitgeist in Russia under Putin as ‘associative, irrational and magical.’ Of all the turncoats and renegades Putin has collected over the years, from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange, Seagal is surely the strangest. It is often said that Putin is a macho leader. Famous pictures depict him stripped to the waist, swimming, riding and stalking through the tundra gripping a hunting rifle. The stunts are freighted with symbolism: a strong man rightfully leading a rightfully strong country.
Yet what could Seagal possibly symbolize? If you were on the street, and there was a situation – with glassy-eyed blade-wielding hombres closing in – would Steven Seagal be the Hollywood tough guy you’d choose to save your arse? Even in his early 1990s heyday he was widely mocked for running ‘like a girl’. Today he looks like a corpulent witch doctor, who, any news cycle now, will be led bleary-eyed and half-tranquilized from a cheap motel somewhere to face Weinstein-esque charges. At this point Danny DeVito is probably going to be more useful in a bar fight.
Since 2016 the terms commentators use to describe politics have changed. We often hear that irrationality, paranoia and psychopathy are the ‘new normal.’ When viral videos show envoy Seagal being fed carrots by the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, or when President Trump feeds Big Macs to college football champions, it is taken as a given that the world has turned a peculiar, sinister and darkly humorous bend.
But how rational was the previous normal? It featured, to pluck three examples at random: an entire year spent trying to figure out the provenance of a white spot on a blue dress; two forever wars in the Middle-East that cost trillions of dollars; a housing bubble that nearly brought down the world economy. Storied publications like The New York Times were not banging on the irrationality drum when the 4th Infantry Division began powering its way towards Baghdad. The recent past was not really at all rational. It simply took on the appearance and used the language of rationality, thus winning plaudits from those in the media and policy world who believe themselves to be more rational than they actually are.
Ubi sunt? must be the oldest lament in the book. Where have they gone, today’s editorials cry, the great American leaders of yesteryear? Well let’s consider George W. Bush. The first time ‘43’ (as he is known in Texas) met Vladimir Putin he told reporters that ‘I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.’ Throughout Bush’s terms, according to James Mann, Putin was known in the White House as ‘Pootie-Poot’. President Trump may have many flaws but being this foolish isn’t one of them.
In The Dawn of Eurasia, Bruno Maçães, a former Portuguese diplomat, suggests that Kremlin embraces irrationality in order to strengthen its own hold on power:
‘… a system that failed to incorporate a dimension of chaos, that pushed the irrationality of the world to the outside, would become vulnerable to that very chaos erupting from the outside.’
This is the meaning of Steven Seagal, humanitarian envoy. Vladimir Putin and his advisers understand that much of what passes for culture is lowbrow, inauthentic and incorrigibly idiotic. It is also entirely legitimate for mass audiences across the world.
This is why Russia’s ornamental, powerless parliament is packed with TV actors, athletes and singers. To not incorporate them into politics at some level is to risk them becoming popular enough to entertain their way into real power. Obama was flabbergasted when Putin put forward Seagal as a potential consul. He also said ‘Trump will not be president.’ It’s hard not to conclude that Putin knew something he didn’t.